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Argentine Farmers Rally Against Gov’t Wheat Policy

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Hundreds of hardline Argentine farmers protested on Feb. 16, calling for a freeze on sales of grains and cattle, to press President Cristina Fernandez to end government intervention in the wheat market.

A wave of strikes by farmers in 2008 rocked local financial markets, disrupted the nation’s multibillion-dollar grains shipments and eroded Fernandez’s popularity. Tensions have eased, but farmers are still pushing for policy changes.

They are particularly angry over wheat export curbs, which they say are making it impossible for farmers to sell crops at a fair price. Tighter restrictions on beef exports to cool surging steak costs have worsened their mood.

Hundreds of farmers, many driving tractors, rallied on a main road in the farming province of Santa Fe in a protest organized by the Argentine Agrarian Federation – one of the four groups that has led anti-government demonstrations.

“The main reason for the protest are the problems in the wheat market,” said Omar Barchetta, vice-president of the federation, adding that the group would propose a commercial strike to the other three main agricultural associations.

“We’ll decide what our battle plan is, if our demands aren’t met,” he added.

Argentine growers brought in the last of the 2009-10 wheat crop months ago, but they say government export curbs have caused oversupply, meaning farmers can not get the full market price.

Argentina, a leading global wheat exporter and key supplier to neighbouring Brazil, has restricted shipments in recent years to guarantee domestic supplies and tame the price of everyday staples.

Domestic demand is about 6.5 million tonnes and the Agriculture Ministry estimates 2009-10 output at 7.48 million, leaving little surplus for export. Millers normally buy only a little at a time, causing the current supply glut.

A sudden surge in beef prices has also raised fears among ranchers that the government will resume price controls in the country’s cattle markets.

Agriculture Minister Julian Dominguez said the government was working to resolve problems in the wheat market, but he blamed them on a prolonged drought last year.

The government has announced a series of measures aimed at restoring normality to the wheat market, but buyers are still virtually absent from the local trade.

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